After World War II, a trend toward consolidating schools into larger districts with more modern, standardized facilities created business opportunities for industrial manufacturers. Among these, Educators Manufacturing Company of Tacoma was on the leading edge of the transition, designing and building modular cabinets, furniture, and other fixtures to meet the changing needs of new schools and other institutional facilities. Its methodical approach to design, in collaboration with academic researchers, made Educators a nationwide player in the industry and led to its rapid expansion throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. However, shifting demographics, reduced availability of materials, increasing labor and shipping costs, and new competition changed the market and Educators' business model faltered, leading to downsizing, mergers, and the eventual closure of its plant in Tacoma. The company's former headquarters was acquired by the Port of Tacoma in 2008 and housed a number of other businesses over the next decade, but by 2018 plans called for the once-celebrated Educators Manufacturing building to make way for new development.
Tacoma's Furniture Industry
The future site of the Educators Manufacturing Company factory was part of the Hylebos Creek Estuary on Commencement Bay, the inlet of Puget Sound on which the city of Tacoma is located. Prior to extensive filling, this area supported a large number of waterfowl, fish, and other species, many of which were used by the Puyallup Tribe and other Puget Sound tribes. As Tacoma's working waterfront developed at the head of Commencement Bay in the late 1800s and early 1900s, extensive dredging and filling projects created new land between the mouth of the Puyallup River and Hylebos Creek to the east where sawmills, plywood and pulp mills, and other industrial concerns located. In 1918, Pierce County voters approved establishment of the Port of Tacoma to manage and regulate the harbor's commercial growth. By the 1920s, railroad lines knit the area together, with spurs serving the increasing number of industrial businesses there. Shipbuilding, chemical processing, and other industries became mainstays of the Port by the onset of World War II. By then, the general shoreline that exists today was established, along with the Port's waterways and terminals.
From the 1870s onward, Tacoma's access to shipping by land and sea, coupled with abundant resources including timber and coal, fueled its development as a wood-products processing and manufacturing center. Among the more prominent of these industries, furniture manufacturing began soon after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway on Commencement Bay in 1873. By 1900, several large furniture-manufacturing concerns operated in Tacoma, including the F. S. Harmon Manufacturing Company, the Pacific Lounge and Upholstery Company (later Carman Manufacturing Company), and the Tacoma Furniture Factory. In addition, processed-wood-products businesses, including residential millwork, cabinet making, and commercial fixture manufacturers, came into existence throughout the early-to-mid twentieth century. The abundance of these industries meant a large, skilled workforce of woodworkers developed early on in Tacoma, to meet the labor needs of these growing industries.
After World War II, a strong national economy and increased demand for manufactured goods prompted a new generation of furniture and commercial-fixture manufacturers to join existing companies in Tacoma. Among these, Educators Manufacturing Company was founded to meet the emerging needs of growing school districts as an expanding middle class began new families.
Across the country, a movement toward school consolidation that began in the early twentieth century accelerated after the war as school administrators saw centralization as the way to cut costs, improve efficiency, and standardize education outcomes. In the 1950s, community life organized increasingly around automobile transportation, and school consolidation meshed well with the postwar trend of families settling in new suburban neighborhoods. Educators Manufacturing Company was among a number of companies across America that came into being to supply modern school building with prefabricated products.
Prior to the founding of Educators Manufacturing, the Educators Furniture and Supply Company was organized in Sacramento, California, in 1948, to meet the West Coast demand for school furniture and fixtures. By 1949, business was good enough to support a new regional sales office in Seattle. As orders in the Pacific Northwest increased, Educators Furniture saw an opportunity to add a production line in Tacoma and in 1951 purchased Furniture Arts Inc., forming Educators Manufacturing Company. Founded just the year before as a worker-owned cooperative, Furniture Arts had previously been the wooden-furniture division of the long-established Carman Manufacturing Company at 725 E 25th Street in Tacoma, one of the region's largest mattress manufacturers. After Furniture Arts separated from Carman, for a time it continued to supply Carman with bed frames.
After Furniture Arts was acquired by Educators, it retooled its aging, four-story plant, readying the plant and workers to build modern classroom fixtures to order, using locally sourced hardwoods, plywood, and birch veneer. To guide its work, Educators entered into a partnership with researchers at Stanford University in California, funding a study in 1951 to assess current and future needs for well-equipped modern classrooms. Graduate students made an extensive photographic survey of schools on the West Coast, with special attention paid to work surfaces, activity areas, and storage needs. The study's findings led Educators to implement a modular approach to school and institutional furniture and fixture design in 1952, easily adaptable to the specific requirements of each project.
The rapid pace of school building in the 1950s fueled exceptional growth at Educators Manufacturing. By 1952, the Tacoma plant's output was already five times its 1951 output, and sales of its products extended to the Midwest. By 1955, it was clear Educators was outgrowing the aging Carman factory and plans for a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant began to take shape. That year company president James S. Baldassin (1915-2009) announced Educators would build a new manufacturing plant at 3401 Lincoln Avenue near the Port of Tacoma's marine terminals. Another Tacoma firm, Buffelen Sales Company, was already close to completing its own warehouse on the property. Educators began leasing storage space in Buffelen's new 14,000 square-foot warehouse in anticipation of its own relocation to the site.
By 1957, construction of the new Educators Manufacturing plant was well underway. The building was designed and built by Hart Construction Company, known for its work on commercial and civil projects including the 1931 George Milroy Bridge on the Puyallup River, the 1957 Raft Island Bridge near Gig Harbor, and the Modrow Road Bridge in Cowlitz County. J. P. Simpson, who owned the 3401 Lincoln Avenue property that Educators was leasing, worked with the company to stake out a 180-by-360-foot building footprint, large enough to accommodate all stages of Educators' modern manufacturing line on one floor.
In addition to its manufacturing plant, Educators operated its own sawmill and drying kiln to ensure quality control over its supply of materials. The mill processed alder and maple logs from nearby forests into the materials needed for Educators' production line. Located at Puyallup Avenue and H St, the mill consumed approximately 500 logs per week by 1957, processing 6,000 board feet per day.
When the new Lincoln Avenue plant opened in November 1958, local press covered the event, and the company's rapid growth and future prospects, in glowing terms. The Tacoma Sunday Ledger -- News Tribune published a special section extolling Educators' quick rise since its founding in 1951 to a manufacturer with sales distributors in 30 states, 250 employees, and the "new million dollar Tacoma plant" ("Educators Manufacturing Company"). KING television of Seattle sent a crew to capture the opening events for a special live broadcast. The coverage recounted Educators' history and followed the production process start-to-finish with interviews with employees, administrators, and local dignitaries. The press also lauded the modern production line that threaded 14 stages of assembly together, using conveyor lines to expedite the process.
One of the features implemented in the new factory was a durability-testing area. Machines designed to simulate years of classroom use dragged desks and cabinets back and forth across the floor to estimate how long it took for parts to wear. Staff tested finishes for resistance to marring and scuffing and their durability when exposed to caustic chemicals. Educators also tested its laminated-wood products by soaking them in water, to understand how resistant the products' components were to moisture exposure.
Among the most critical innovations was Educators' use of new mechanized manufacturing processes. It was among the first to employ nail guns in the assembly of cabinets. Educators' purchase of the Pacific Northwest's first Flo-Coater device for applying finish reduced production times, allowing coverage of 400 square feet per minute. Working closely with longtime West Coast manufacturer Fuller Paint Company, Educators developed new surfaces designed to withstand rough daily use over years in classrooms.
By the late 1950s Educators was nationally known for its innovative designs and responsiveness to the changing needs of classrooms. One of its more successful offerings was the Porta-Lab unit. Designed as self-contained science-experiment workstations for high-school students, Porta-Lab cabinets featured built-in sinks, a gas tap for Bunsen burners, electrical outlets, and a chemical-resistant work surface. In the wake of the the Soviet Union's launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, a nationwide push for more rigorous science and math training accelerated demand for such equipment and Porta-Lab units became ubiquitous in school science classrooms across the country. Tacoma's Woodrow Wilson High School was among the first to install and use the units.
Building on its Porta-Lab success, Educators also offered workstations customized for other educational needs. Among these, a freestanding moveable cabinet similar to Porta-Lab was designed for home-economics classrooms and became a popular product. Porta-Kitchen units had durable tops and featured built-in sinks and cooking surfaces. With these and its established product lines including wardrobes, desks, and cabinets, Educators further secured its leadership in the school-fixture supply market.
As Educators continued its expansion into the 1960s, sales reached $5 million annually. Improvements to the facilities made to accommodate increased production included a new 17,000-square-foot warehouse in 1960. In 1962 the company added another 16,000 square feet of storage and a railroad spur. To consolidate operations, the Seattle office of the Educators Furniture and Supply Company also relocated to a new building at 1302 Alexander Avenue, not far from Educators' Lincoln Avenue plant.
While Educators continued its efforts to expand and innovate, it remained true to its origins as a cooperative founded by skilled workers. Many of its 275 employees remained shareholders, retaining nearly 50 percent of the stock. Employees also elected its board of nine directors, all of whom resided in Tacoma.
The relationship with Stanford University established in the early 1950s led to another collaboration in 1962 to update research on schoolroom needs. A Ford Foundation grant that year funded the School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) program. Its main goals were to reduce construction costs and streamline school building through further standardization of architectural components. The project brought together construction experts, education scholars, school administrators, teachers, students, and product suppliers to collaborate in hands-on research to evaluate existing school-building standards and anticipate future needs.
A new purpose-built facility on the Stanford University campus, designed to serve as the test platform, housed the study. Manufacturers from across the country contributed both existing and experimental products to the multi-year project. Throughout the study, Educators' products' durability and interchangeable components impressed researchers. The final report, published in 1967, lauded their versatility:
"Their most remarkable feature is that the drawers, doors, and adjustable shelves are freely interchangeable, in cabinets of the same width, using only a Phillips screwdriver. Drawers are 10, 20, 40, and 60 inches wide and 3, 6, 9, and 12 inches deep. Dividers permit, for example, the subdivision of a 60-inch-wide cabinet into three 20-inch sections, two of which might be given doors and interior shelving, and the third a rack of drawers in any combination that filled its height. The wooden cabinets may have wood, acid-resistant synthetic stone, or stainless steel tops, or melamine plastic tops in a choice of four colors. The door surfaces and drawer fronts are a melamine plastic available in four colors or a simulated wood grain" (Benet et al., 27).
The Stanford SCSD study brought together representatives from many industries, forging new relationships between companies and their leaders. Among the manufacturers collaborating in the study were the E. F. Hauserman Company, Hough Manufacturing, and Western Sky Industries, whose product lines and clients overlapped those of Educators. As competition between these companies intensified in the 1960s, the relationships forged in the SCSD project laid the groundwork for future collaborations and mergers.
By the mid-1960s, the school-construction boom was slowing, mirroring the slowing in population growth. Rapid school consolidation and district expansion throughout the 1950s and early 1960s caught up with the demands of communities. In addition, during the growth era, a number of regional competitors for Educators entered the field. In a speech to the Tacoma Kiwanis, Educators' president Robert Thorpe (1917-2011) explained that competitors gained an advantage by using designs Educators developed for a client to produce their own lower-bid estimates. Despite its expansion into products for college dormitories, nursing homes, and commercial buildings, growth in Educators' profits and market share stalled.
In the 1966 fiscal year, Educators saw a net loss of $106,000. The need to rein in costs led Educators to hire a consulting firm to examine its production methods in detail and make recommendations for improvements. Seattle-based Harry J. Prior and Associates set to work analyzing all aspects of the business and concluded that improving the efficiency of the production line was a priority. To help identify inefficiencies, each of the 14 stages of production kept its own books and closely tracked hours and material costs. As one production section finished parts, it "sold" them to the next and "bought" more materials from the preceding station, essentially operating each section as its own business. As the consultants identified issues, the managers and workers helped devise and implement solutions.
By 1968 Educators was again showing profits. However, the ongoing contraction in the prefabricated-school-component market led to downsizing and consolidations and Educators was not immune. In 1968, Educators announced its intent to merge with E. F. Hauserman of Cleveland, Ohio. Founded in 1913 by Earl F. Hauserman (1884-1943) to build moveable steel interior partitions for commercial and institutional buildings, Hauserman also manufactured prefabricated decks for ships, portable steel runways, and floats for temporary bridges during World War II. After the war, Hauserman entered the school-construction-supply market, designing and manufacturing moveable partitions for classrooms. A desire to diversify its product lines in the late 1960s led Hauserman to pursue acquisition of Educators. At the same time, Hauserman acquired the Gotham Educational Equipment Company of New Rochelle, New York, which made chalkboards and other schoolroom necessities.
In late 1968, Educators' employee shareholders voted to approve the merger. Educators became a subsidiary of the E. F. Hauserman Company, which reorganized as Hauserman, Inc., in 1972. The acquisitions of Educators and Gotham made Hauserman one of the largest school-architectural-components suppliers in the country and Educators' products featured prominently in Hauserman's sales.
In 1972, the Educational Facilities Center opened in downtown Chicago, Illinois, organized by the National Education Association. It featured exhibits and working classrooms showcasing new products and teaching methodologies for teachers and administrators to try out, designed to enhance the classroom experience. The center hosted students and teachers on a volunteer basis, allowing them to use the classrooms as they wanted, in exchange for their impressions of the programs and systems on display. Throughout the exhibition, Hauserman products, including Educators' fixtures, featured prominently and received positive reviews.
Despite the company's commitment to innovation, in the lean economic climate of the 1970s, Educators struggled to compete in the changing market, and looked for new ways to stay financially viable. To diversify its product offerings, Educators introduced a new line of low-cost residential furniture, sold unassembled. Known as the Design America House line, it was intended to appeal to cost-conscious buyers living in smaller spaces. Among the space-saving designs was a bed that doubled as a sofa and included a second bed that slid underneath. Offerings also included a folding dining table, a china cabinet, lightweight bookcases, and a bar. All products included pictorial instructions, and Educators promoted the line as "furniture that may be easily assembled by the homemaker" (Felker).
As the 1970s wore on, economic sluggishness, increasing transportation costs caused by fuel shortages, and shrinking availability of regionally sourced materials posed ongoing challenges to Educators. The decreasing availability of hardwoods due to overharvesting and new environmental regulations were key factors in the contraction in Tacoma's wood-products industries, and many local furniture makers downsized or closed. Meanwhile, Educators' parent company Hauserman also struggled to keep ahead of changing markets. In 1978, it acquired Canadian manufacturer Sunar, Inc., to grow its office-furniture-manufacturing line and became Sunar Hauserman, Inc., in 1983.
By 1981, Educators' Tacoma operation was still in business but no longer produced school fixtures. That year Accurate Packaging Inc., a custom corrugated-cardboard-container manufacturing business, purchased the Educators facilities at 3401 Lincoln Avenue. By the mid-1980s Educators was operating under Sunar Hauserman and shared its factory with Accurate Packaging. By the late 1980s, Educators further downsized operations into a nearby facility at 1671 Lincoln Avenue while Mapletex, making plastic baking equipment, and American Entertainment Centers Inc. joined Accurate Packaging at the 3401 Lincoln Avenue site.
End of the Line
In 1989, Sunar Hauserman went out of business, citing increased competition and rising costs that led to ongoing financial losses. By 1992 Danwood Design was operating the Educators plant at 1671 Lincoln Avenue. Founded by Dan Devlin in 1976, Danwood Design worked with design firm Marvin Stein and Associates of Seattle to produce contemporary furniture for homes and offices. Selling under the product names Far West Wood Design and Primal Systems, Danwood mainly produced high-end custom work, mirroring a broader shift toward specialty markets in the rest of Tacoma's surviving furniture industry.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the former Educators plant at 3401 Lincoln Avenue was showing its age. As time and the elements took their toll, the buildings that were once the pride of one of Tacoma's largest and most successful manufacturing firms went through a number of tenants, hosting smaller firms that came and went, sharing the space over the years. Among them were Sol-Pro, Inc., a hazardous waste handling firm; American Tar Company; and Edwin Enterprises, producing residential millwork.
In 2008 the Port of Tacoma acquired the buildings and site. By early 2018, preparations were in progress for a new warehouse and office development named Portside 55 at the site, with removal of the former Educators Manufacturing plant planned for later that year. Although the buildings would be lost, Educators' role as an important industry in Tacoma's mid-twentieth-century economy and its legacy as an innovator in classroom design lives on, influencing present and future school designs for generations of students and teachers.